Spring Practice Notebook: Special Teams

PITTSBURGH -- Dave Brytus grew up in the Pittsburgh area, attended West Allegheny High School and cheered for the University of Pittsburgh football team throughout his youth.

The same could be said about Conor Lee, only he went to Upper St. Clair. But the redshirt juniors were brought together with the Panthers during spring practice sessions this month at the UPMC Sports Complex. Lee returns as Pitt's place-kicker, while Dave Brytus is expected to take over for four-year starter Adam Graessle as the punter.

Lee beat out former starter David Abdul in a preseason competition last year, while Brytus transferred to Pitt last year after two years as a starter at Purdue in the Big Ten Conference.

"I think last year was a big year for Conor,'' Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He came in and competed with Abdul. He went into some situations and made some kicks for us when we needed him, so I would expect him to be a lot more confident going into this season. And he will be.

"But we need to figure out our punting situation. Dave Brytus has done it before, so it's not like we're talking about a rookie. This guy has kicked in the Big Ten before, and he's done it at a high level. So, we just have to get him some confidence, and he'll be all right.''

Lee was nothing less than spectacular in his rookie season at Pitt. He made all 47 of his extra-point attempts and hit 12 of 14 field goals for 83 points with decent range. His longest field goal made was from 47 yards.

"I still feel like I have to prove myself,'' Lee said. "I had a pretty good percentage kicking field goals, but I want to do more. I need to get a chance to kick a game-winning field goal, more games with multiple field goals, so I still have to prove myself that way.

"Mostly, though, I'm just trying to push myself as hard as possible so I don't get complacent. You never want to get that way at all. So, I play mind games with myself, putting myself in different situations, just to get better each day and get ready for the season.''

Actually, Lee didn't have any opportunities to win games for Pitt on a last-second field goal last season. The Panthers' six victories in their first seven games were all blowouts or at least comfortable at an early stage, and only one loss was close -- by one point in double-overtime at Connecticut. But the Huskies won that game on a two-point conversion.

"It's definitely different this year,'' Lee said. "I can work on more things and not be concerned about making every kick in practice. I felt, last year, that I had to make everything just to win the job.

"So, I maybe didn't work on some things that would make me a better kicker in the end. I can do that this year. I'm still competitive, but I know I don't have to look over my shoulder, either.''

Brytus was ranked among the top kicking recruits in the nation in 2004 and received a scholarship from Purdue where he averaged 39.5 yards per punt as a freshman, put 22 punts down inside the 20-yard line and had 17 fair catches on 62 punts to go with 11 touchbacks on 24 kickoffs. Brytus improved as a sophomore, as he averaged 40 yards per punt, 48.9 in the Sun Bowl, and was among 10 Ray Guy Award finalists as the nation's top punter.

All the coaches that recruited him left Purdue after the 2005 season, so he transferred to Pitt and had to sit out last fall. But now that Graessle has graduated, Brytus is available to step in for his final two seasons.

"It was tough, sure, because I missed playing,'' Brytus said. "But at the same time, it was all right, because I learned so much. Adam (Graessle) was an exceptional punter with the strongest leg I've ever seen, and I learned so much from him. He taught me a lot last season.

"So, it was good to be able to watch him, and I was able to get adapted to a new school. So, just getting to sit out and work on my fundamentals, with a guy like Adam helping me out, was an excellent opportunity for me last season. And I know that's going to help me this season.

Like his mentor in previous seasons, Brytus won't just be a punter. He'll likely be the holder for placements for Lee and also kick off for Pitt.

"I'm working on my holding, as well as the punting and kickoffs,'' Brytus said. "I kicked off at Purdue, so I've done it before. And it's a job that I like, so I'm working hard at everything they want me to do here at Pitt.''

Lee didn't expect any problems in the kicking game despite a new punter and holder for the first time in years. The long-snapper, redshirt junior Mark Estermyer, has been around for several seasons as well.

"Brytus and Lucas (Stone) are working on holding, and we still have a lot of work to do,'' Lee said. "But we're coming together a lot quicker than I thought with this. They've really picked things up a lot quicker, and we're doing really well right now. I never thought it would go so well right away.

"Sure, I've missed some kicks, and I could be a little more consistent. But we're doing well, and we're getting better. So, that's all that counts right now. And once we get closer to the season, during camp, we'll be a lot better as a unit. We have a lot of time to work on this before the season.''

Pitt still has several spring practices before the annual Blue-Gold game April 14 at Heinz Field, while training camp opens the first week in August.

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